The Los Angeles Dodgers 2010 season has been careening downhill rapidly since the All-Star Game as the team has gone 14-23, scoring an average of just 3.1 runs per game and being shut out five times.
The relationship between Dodgers center fielder Matt Kemp and the Los Angeles Times sports section has gone downhill even faster in the past two weeks.
On August 1, columnist T.J. Simers quoted third base coach Larry Bowa:
"I wish I had Matt Kemp's tools because I would be in Cooperstown," Bowa said. "He has so much athleticism. I don't know if he knows what it's like to go full bore for nine innings. He's so talented, I don't think his mind lets him ask, 'Is there more here?'
"I have one question I'd like to ask him, 'Are you dead tired when the game is over?' My dad told me early on I should be exhausted after every game if I've done my batting practice, taken ground balls, backed up every play and gone all out. I wonder if he's ever felt like that?"
Eleven days later, columnist Bill Plaschke ran an interview with Kemp's agent, Dave Stewart. Stewart broached the idea that perhaps Kemp would find it better to get traded to an organization that would not be as hostile toward him.
General manager Ned Colletti, along with Bowa and bench coach Bob Schaefer (who was also singled out by Stewart for being too critical) seemed to clear the air. Colletti, although disappointed with Kemp's play all year, clearly did not want to trade his team's leading power hitter, especially one whose salary was still under team control.
Simers struck a conciliatory, almost understanding tone by his standards, on August 17. Simers did take a swipe at Kemp being nominated for a "Heart and Hustle" award (the coaching staff thought that should have been given to utility infielder Jamey Carroll.)
FOR THE record, I like Kemp, think he's going to be a great player, and believe he needs an off-season to regroup, grow up and get a grip on the day-to-day pressure of being in the spotlight.
Kemp should never have allowed his agent, Dave Stewart, to cry to Plaschke, making Kemp appear as a baby incapable of taking criticism or advice from Dodgers' coaches who are paid to mentor such a young player.
If the fans here turn on him, believing he really doesn't want to be here, he might never recover.
It took only two days before the Times went after Kemp again. This time, it was the paper's Dodgers blogger, Steve Dilbeck, who ripped into Kemp and people who support him in a rambling piece of defensiveness.
Is it even possible for anyone to say or write anything remotely critical of Matt Kemp without his hoard of oversensitive defenders screaming: "They're making him a scapegoat! It's unfair! He's being singled out! They only yell at Matty!"
What's up with this?
Now I know this isn't the majority, but still, it's amazing how anything resembling a barb -- or even perceived to be -- gets the Kemp stat wonks' undies in a knot.
Finally, at least for the moment, on Saturday, Simers went for the jugular on both Kemp and Stewart after he received a critical e-mail from Stewart about his column on August 17. Stewart committed one of the biggest sins anyone in the L.A. sports scene can do: he gave Simers ammunition for a tirade.
Simers portrayed Kemp now as a lazy player who failed to give it his all and doesn't care about the fans (unlike that nice Andre Ethier or that gritty Jamey Carroll). Simers also went for the throat pulling out a veiled reference to the time when Stewart was arrested for soliciting a prostitute, an event that took place 25 years ago.
Because Simers portrays his column as "humor," he essentially receives a "Get Out of Jail Free" card for pretty much anything he writes. Anything offensive gets dismissed as "well that guy just didn't get it."
What I am trying to figure out is: why does Kemp receive what seems to be an inordinate amount of scorn from the Times staff. Granted, Kemp has had a disappointing season, both on offense and defense. On the other hand, so has pretty much everybody else on the Dodgers with the exception of Hong-Chih Kuo.
Simers and Plaschke, who employ the "Goofus vs. Gallant" dialectic in their writing whenever they can, have decided that Kemp is the one who can do no right, and will likely never improve. For Plaschke, it's usually the Dodgers as Goofus and the Angels as Gallant. For Simers, it's Kemp as Goofus and Ethier as Gallant. (Until Ethier refuses to talk to him, then new people will take the roles.)
But, Simers and Plaschke are far from analysts. They are columnists. They are looking for a story angle. They can take what the coaches (like Larry Bowa) and front office feed them, and their work is done. (Also, this past weekend, Simers took a page out of the Plaschke playbook from 2009 by running his own "Vin Scully is going to retire" story. Both stories arose from what turned out to be innocuous comments from Scully about him considering retirement, which any person in their 80s would be doing.)
What's not known is just why it is Kemp that is singled out for so much criticism? Any Kemp mistake is portrayed as the result of mental lapses and lack of dedication. When newly acquired second baseman Ryan Theriot was thrown out going from first to third on a single in a game at Atlanta when the Dodgers behind 8-0, the play received only a brief mention. (Theriot said he always plays aggressively. Cubs fans have warned me to expect to see Theriot getting thrown out on the bases a lot.)
Does the coaching staff and front office find Kemp to be unteachable? Is he lazy? Or is that an excuse that the coaching staff can use to deflect blame from their own shortcomings? Does Colletti find it easier to blame the team's failings on Kemp's underperformance, or his own failure and/or misfortune to not finding the right mix of players this year?
Perhaps Kemp should heed the advice given to Peter Parker by his Uncle Ben. "With great power comes great responsibility." My advice to Matt Kemp: change your name to Scott Podsednik, date someone less famous than Rihanna, and see if anybody even cares what you do on the field.